Monday, 5 January 2015

Magna Carta Debunked

Over the next few months there will be all sorts of fuss over the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June. Over the centuries it has passed into legend as the dawn of democracy.

Let me tell you a secret: At the time, it was no such thing.

The barons had had enough of King John riding roughshod over everyone, and finally gained enough support to threaten him. He reluctantly agreed to the barons' demands and, after some negotiation, set his seal to them.

Another secret: King John didn't sign the charter – he couldn't write, he had people to do that for him.

So the barons had brought the King to heel, and democracy dawned, yes?

No. John had already written to the Pope about what his barons were trying to do to him, and within a few weeks the Pope absolved him from any compliance at all.

But Magna Carta was enforced when John died, and that was the dawn of democracy and rights for all.

No. Democracy was only for 10 percent of the people. Magna Carta is specifically for freemen. Most of the population were serfs and had no rights, and the charter did not apply to women.

So what's all the fuss?

The fuss is really about the idea that the king is not above the law. This was the first time the king's power was reigned in. Until then, the rule had been 'the divine right of kings', which meant they could do anything they wanted. Previous kings had had some respect for their subjects, even though they often treated them badly. King John used his subjects for his own ends, and paid the price. Magna Carta made sure (when it was eventually enforced) that no king would ever do the same.


  1. Not exactly true though Anne-Marie. Lots of clauses apply to all men, particularly the most famous of all: clause 39. Some clauses grant rights to serfs and women, e.g. the forest and widow clauses. Also, the 1297 edition explicitly states that it applies to all men "regardless of condition or estate".

  2. The original Magna Carta (though it wasn't called that then) was only for free men. Later versions extended it until in 1297 it was for all, as you say. Thanks for your contribution. The Magna Carta Story is now available in ebook and print from Amazon and Create Space.

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  5. See the clauses in the original that apply to serfs (16, 20, 40, 44) women (7 & 8), all men (30, 31, 39), not to mention those that concern weights and measures, fish weirs, etc.

  6. You may be more qualified than me, but I got my information from eminent historians. Checking the translation from the British Library, there are one or two mentions but not in all the clauses you itemize. Clause16 says 'no man' but is talking about a knight's fee, clause 20 does say 'villein', clause 40 says 'no one' but follows on from 39 which says 'freeman', and clause 44 says 'people' which could include serfs. Clauses 7 & 8 are specifically about widows, not all women. Clauses 30, 31 & 39 are about freemen. My original assertion maybe should have been less emphatic, but there wasn't much for non-freemen at all.

  7. I think it helps to look at the text, its subtext, and syntax in a more nuanced way. I may not be an “eminent historian” but that’s rather an ad hominem view. Let’s look at the facts. The initial clauses do indeed explicitly apply to the free men as well as the knights, barons and earls. But as the document progresses and becomes more wide-ranging; taking on the national and civic issues of weights, measures, fish weirs and bridges, payments for corn, ale, carts, horses, wood and the law surrounding forests, we see the edges start to blur between free men and all men and indeed between the ranks of nobility.

    The distinction is apparent in contrasting successive clauses including and then exempting the prefix 'free' — in particular the famous and profound “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice” in clause 40; being markedly distinct from the previous clause which specifies that all free men have the right to judgement from their equals. These notable omissions and distinctions leave ample room for fair and self-evident interpretation and were likely left ambiguous and enigmatic on purpose.

    “16. No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight's fee, or other free holding of land, than is due from it.”

    “20. […] A villein shall be spared the implements of his husbandry if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court.”

    “23. No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.”

    “28. No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.”

    “42. In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water [...]”

    “43. If a man holds lands of any 'escheat' such as the 'honour' of Wallingford, Nottingham, Boulogne, Lancaster, or of other 'escheats' in our hand that are baronies, at his death his heir shall give us only the 'relief' and service that he would have made to the baron [...]” — Recognising the dilution of laws to include all men by this series of clauses, the authors embed this insult to King John; as these were his very own lands, granted to him by his brother Richard. Extending the insult, the Barons then refer to the late Kings Richard and Henry as their “brother” and “father” respectively in the highly significant clauses 52 & 53. These inferences may seem subtle, but under the feudal system, titles and honours shown in greetings, particularly to superiors, were immensely symbolic and important.

    44. People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest [...]

    I believe the authors of the Charter; Stephen Langton and the rebel Barons, understood the significance of what they were doing and they knew they were invoking wholesale changes to the system with wide-ranging implications for future generations. They knew they were the first legislators to attempt to institute a form of democracy and meaningfully invoke the critical phrases: “law of the land” and “common consent of the realm”. Therefore we should not fool ourselves that seeing themselves as guardians of the entire Kingdom and all who lived in it, was beyond their scope.

  8. Re clause 16 applying to a knight's fee, surely it also applies to the smallholders and villeins working on the fee.

  9. Thank you for getting involved and explaining in such detail. The authors of 1215 The Year of Magna Carta say,'As the product of rebellion it was conceived and drawn up in an atmosphere of crisis. John and his enemies were bidding against each other for political and military support. In these circumstances the barons could not afford to be identified with a program that suited only their own sectional interests. They ended up by demanding a charter of liberties that was long, detailed and contained something for everyone. Thus Magna Carta took shape not just as a criticism of the way John had been treating his barons, but as a thoroughgoing commentary on a whole system of government.'

    My aim is make history fun and the fascinating stories accessible to everyone, so I have simplified it, trying to point out that there was no thought of 'democracy' at the time, just trying to rein in King John's extreme behaviour. As such, the main aim was for redress for the barons and the church. Later issues of the charter removed the more objectional clauses and the ones relating specifically to John, and made it more widely applicable. The original charter was expressly addressed 'To all free men of my kingdom'.

    I hope you will find my book enjoyable on that level, and agree that it does give the ordinary man in the street a grasp of what all the fuss is about in this anniversary year.

  10. I quite agree. I have a book out too, perhaps we can do a swap.